Mexico's most-wanted drug lord escaped prison by hiding in a laundry truck nearly a decade ago, and his legend and fortune seem to grow with each passing day he eludes capture.
Now he has reached a new level of fame — or infamy — by making Forbes magazine's list of the 67 "World's Most Powerful People."
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is even considered more powerful than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — No. 67 — and France's Nicolas Sarkozy — No. 56 — according to Forbes magazine's list of the 67 "World's Most Powerful People." At No. 41, Guzman was just below Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mexican officials blame Guzman's cartel for much of the country's staggering bloodshed. Drug violence has killed nearly 14,000 people since Calderon took office in 2006, and more than 2,000 people so far this year in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where Guzman's cartel is fighting a turf battle against the Juarez cartel.
"Of course he's influential, rich and powerful, but he has cost so many lives, so many youths," said Gabriela Lopez, a 25-year-old businesswoman in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "I wish they would make a list pointing out that as well."
‘Almost iconic figure’
Guzman's vast drug trafficking empire is worth an estimated $1 billion, according to Forbes. Yet unlike other, flashier smugglers, few details are known about the Sinaloa cartel boss and the actual power he wields inside his gang.
"I think he's an almost iconic figure in the underworld," said Don Thornhill, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who tracked Guzman and other Mexican drug lords during his 25-year career before retiring in 2007. "He's certainly taken on legendary status because of his jail break. I think he's pretty savvy at making the right contacts, knowing the right people to pay off, which is why he has managed to keep going as long as he has."
Growing up poor, he was drawn to the money being made by the flow of illegal drugs through his home state of Sinaloa.
Guzman joined the Guadalajara cartel. After the cartel's leader was arrested in 1989, the gang split, and Guzman took control of Sinaloa's operations.
The Sinaloa cartel violently seized lucrative drug routes from rivals and built sophisticated tunnels under the U.S. border to move its loads.
In 1993, gunmen linked to the Tijuana drug cartel attempted to kill Guzman at the Guadalajara airport but missed and instead hit Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, outraging Mexicans.
Police arrested Guzman weeks later. But Guzman slipped out of El Puente Grande prison in a laundry truck in 2001, allegedly with the help of the prison director and more than two dozen guards.
He has escaped arrest ever since despite million-dollar rewards offered on both sides of the border for information leading to his whereabouts.
An archbishop in northern Durango state said in April that Guzman lives in a town nearby. Days later, investigators found the bodies of two slain army lieutenants with a note: "Neither the government nor priests can handle El Chapo."
The office of the presidency declined to comment on Guzman's inclusion on Wednesday's list — and the exclusion of President Felipe Calderon.
Forbes said Guzman's ranking was intended to spark conversation, and asked readers: "Do despicable criminals like billionaire Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman (No. 41) belong on this list at all?"
Thornhill said Guzman stands out because of his ability to outlast other kingpins who have either been killed or jailed.
"It doesn't seem anyone is close to catching him soon," he said.